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Ukiyo-e print of yōkai, by Aotoshi Matsui

Yōkai (妖怪, ghost, phantom, strange apparition) are a class of supernatural monsters in Japanese folklore. The word yōkai is made up of the kanji for "bewitching; attractive; calamity" and "apparition; mystery; suspicious".[1] They can also be called ayakashi (), mononoke (物の怪), or mamono (魔物). Yōkai range eclectically from the malevolent to the mischievous, or occasionally bring good fortune to those who encounter them. Often they possess animal features (such as the Kappa, which is similar to a turtle, or the Tengu which has wings), other times they can appear mostly human, some look like inanimate objects and others have no discernible shape. Yōkai usually have a spiritual supernatural power, with shapeshifting being one of the most common. Yōkai that have the ability to shapeshift are called obake.

Japanese folklorists and historians use yōkai as "supernatural or unaccountable phenomena to their informants". In the Edo period, many artists, such as Toriyama Sekien, created yōkai inspired by folklore or their own ideas, and in the present, several yōkai created by them (e.g. Kameosa and Amikiri, see below) are wrongly considered as being of legendary origin.[2]


  • Types 1
    • Animals 1.1
    • Oni 1.2
    • Tengu 1.3
    • Tsukumogami 1.4
    • Human transformations 1.5
    • Other 1.6
  • History 2
    • Ancient and middle ages 2.1
    • Edo period 2.2
    • Meiji and afterwards 2.3
    • Modern times 2.4
  • In media 3
    • Famous works and authors 3.1
  • Synonyms to yōkai 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8


There are a wide variety of yōkai in Japanese folklore. In general, yōkai is a broad term, and can be used to encompass virtually all monsters and supernatural beings, even including creatures from European folklore on occasion.


Ukiyo-e print of yōkai, by Kawanabe Kyōsai

Many indigenous Japanese animals are thought to have magical qualities. Most of these are henge (変化), which are shapeshifters (o-bake, bake-mono[3]) that often appear in human form, mostly women. Some of the better known animal yōkai include the following:


One of the most well-known aspects of Japanese folklore is the oni, which has traits of demons and ogres, usually depicted with red, blue, brown or black skin, two horns on its head, a wide mouth filled with fangs, and wearing nothing but a tigerskin loincloth. It often carries an iron kanabo or a giant sword. Oni are depicted as evil.


A goblin from Japanese mythology that has several supernatural powers and skills in martial arts, the tengu were originally extremely dangerous demons and enemies of Buddhism. Over centuries, their behavior changed from spirits of the damned to active defenders of Dharma.


Tsukumogami are an entire class of yōkai and obake, comprising ordinary household items that have come to life on the one-hundredth anniversary of their birthday. This virtually unlimited classification includes:

Human transformations

Ukiyo-e print of yōkai, by Kawanabe Kyōsai
"Various Yokai Flying out of Wicker Clothes Hamper" from the "Omoi Tsuzura" (おもゐつづら), Yoshitoshi

There are a large number of yōkai who were originally ordinary human beings, transformed into something horrific and grotesque usually during an extremely emotional state. Women suffering from intense jealousy, for example, were thought to transform into the female oni represented by hannya masks.[4] Other examples of human transformations or humanoid yōkai are:

  • Rokuro-kubi (humans able to elongate their necks during the night)
  • Ohaguro-bettari (a figure, usually female, that turns to reveal a face with only a blackened mouth)
  • Futakuchi-onna (a woman with a voracious extra mouth on the back of her head)
  • Dorotabō (the risen corpse of a farmer, who haunts his abused land)


Some yōkai are extremely specific in their habits, for instance:

  • Azukiarai (a yōkai who is always found washing azuki beans).
  • Akaname (only found in dirty bathrooms and spends its time licking the filth left by the untidy owners).
  • Ashiarai Yashiki (A gargantuan foot that appears in rooms and demands the terrified home owner wash it)
  • Tofu Kozo (a small monk who carries a plate with a block of tofu).


Ancient and middle ages

  • First century: there is a book from what is now China titled 循史伝 with the statement "the spectre (yokai) was in the imperial court for a long time. The king asked Tui for the reason. He answered that there was great anxiety and he gave a recommendation to empty the imperial room" (久之 宮中数有妖恠(妖怪) 王以問遂 遂以為有大憂 宮室将空), thus using "妖恠" to mean "phenomenon that surpasses human knowledge."
"Hyakki Yagyo Emaki" Artist unknown, Muromachi Period
  • Houki 8 (772): in the Shoku Nihongi, there is the statement "shinto purification is performed because yokai appear very often in the imperial court, (大祓、宮中にしきりに、妖怪あるためなり)," using the word "yokai" to mean not anything in particular, but strange phenomena in general.
  • Middle of the Heian era (794-1185/1192): In The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon, there is the statement "there are tenacious mononoke (いと執念き御もののけに侍るめり)" as well as a statement by Murasaki Shikibu that "the mononoke have become quite dreadful (御もののけのいみじうこはきなりけり)," which are the first appearances of the word "mononoke."
  • Koubu 3 (1370): In the Taiheiki, in the fifth volume, there is the statement, "Sagami no Nyudo was not at all frightened by yokai."

Edo period

Tenmei 8 (1788): Publication of the Bakemono chakutocho by Masayoshi Kitao. This was a kibyoshi diagram book of yokai, but it was prefaced with the statement "it can be said that the so-called yokai in our society is a representation of our feelings that arise from fear" (世にいふようくわいはおくびょうよりおこるわが心をむかふへあらわしてみるといえども…), and already in this era, while yokai were being researched, it indicated that there were people who questioned whether yokai really existed or not.

It was in this era that the technology of the printing press and publication was first started to be widely used, that a publishing culture developed, and was frequently a subject of kibyoshi[5] and other publications.

As a result, kashi-hon shops that handled such books spread and became widely used, making the general public's impression of each yokai fixed, spreading throughout all of Japan. For example, before the Edo period, there were plenty of interpretations about what the yokai that were classified as "kappa," but because of books and publishing, the notion of "kappa" became anchored to what is now the modern notion of kappa. Also, including other kinds of publications, other than yokai born from folk legend, there were also many newly created yokai that were created through puns or word plays, and the Gazu Hyakki Hagyo by Sekien Toriyama is one example of that. Also, when the Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai became popular in the Edo period, it is thought that one reason for the appearance of new yokai was that since there was demand for the story-tellers to tell about yokai that were not yet known to society, there were cases where individuals simply made up new yokai, and it is known that the kasa-obake and the tōfu-kozō are examples of these.[6]

They are also frequently depicted in ukiyo-e, and there are artists that have drawn famous yokai like Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Yoshitoshi, Kawanabe Kyōsai, and Hokusai, and there are also Hyakki Yagyō books made by artists of the Kanō school.

In this period, toys and games like karuta, sugoroku, pogs frequently used yokai as characters. Thus, with the development of a publishing culture, yokai depictions that were treasured in temples and shrines were able to become something more familiar to people, and it is thought that this is the reason that even though yokai were originally things to be feared, they have then became characters that people feel close to.[7]

Meiji and afterwards

With the Meiji Restoration, Western ideas and translated western publications began to make an impact, and western tales were particularly sought after. Things like binbogami, yakubyogami, and shinigami were talked about, and shinigami were even depicted in classical rakugo, and even though the shinigami were misunderstood as a kind of Japanese yokai or kami, they actually became well-known among the populace through a rakugo called "Shinigami" in San'yūtei Enchō, which was made with reference to the Grimm fairy tale "Godfather Death" and the Italian opera "Crispino." In this way, mysterious phenomena became known among the Japanese populace, and while being misunderstood as Japanese yokai, or modern "western yokai," has had a considerable history in Japan.

At the same time, classical Japanese culture was looked down upon, and there are examples of songs, dances, and books of legends being burned. Scientific thinking was considered superior, while yokai and other superstitions tended to be denounced, but from the end of the Edo period until the Showa and Heisei periods, the publications by folkloricists of the time and the respect placed upon folklore played an undeniable role in preventing the disappearance of Japanese folk culture.

Modern times

From modern times until the present, since yokai are introduced in various kinds of media, they have become well-known among the old, young, men and women. The kamishibai from before the war, and the manga industry, as well as the kashi-hon shops that continued to exist until around Showa 40 (the 1970s), as well as television contributed to the public knowledge and familiarity with yokai. Nowadays, yokai plays a role in attracting tourism revitalizing local regions, like the places depicted in the Tono Monogatari like Tono, Iwate, Iwate Prefecture and the Tottori Prefecture, which is Shigeru Mizuki's place of birth. In Kyoto, there is a store called Yokaido, which is a renovated machiya (traditional Kyoto-style house), and the owner gives a guided yokai tour of Kyoto.

In this way, Yokai are told about in legends in various forms, but traditional oral story telling by the elders and the older people is rare, and regionally unique situations and background in oral story telling are not easily conveyed. For example, the classical yokai represented by tsukumogami can only be felt as something realistic by living close to nature, such as with tanuki (Japanese racoon dogs), foxes and weasels. Furthermore, in the suburbs, and other regions, even when living in a primary-sector environment, there are tools that are no longer seen, such as the inkstone, the kama (a large cooking pot), or the tsurube (a bucket used for getting water from a well), and there exist yokai that are reminiscent of old lifestyles such as the azukiarai and the dorotabo. As a result, even for those born in the first decade of the Showa period (1925-1935), except for some who were evacuated to the countryside, they would feel that those things that become yokai are "not familiar" are "not very understandable." For example, in classical rakugo, even though people understand the words and what they refer to, they are not able to imagine it as something that could be realistic. Thus, the modernization of society has had a negative effect on the place of yokai in classical Japanese culture.

On the other hand, the yokai introduced through mass media are not limited to only those that come from classical sources like folklore, and just like in the Edo period, new fictional yokai continue to be invented, such as scary school stories and other urban legends like kuchisake-onna and Hanako-san, giving birth to new yokai. From 1975 onwards, starting with the popularity of kuchisake-onna, these urban legends began to be referred to in mass media as "modern yokai."[8] This terminology was also used in recent publications dealing with urban legends,[9] and the researcher on yokai, Bintarō Yamaguchi, used this especially frequently.[8]

During the 1970s, many books were published that introduced yokai through encyclopaedias, illustrated reference books, and dictionaries as a part of children's horror books, but along with the yokai that come from classics like folklore, kaidan, and essays, it has been pointed out by modern research that there are some mixed in that do not come from classics, but were newly created. Some well-known examples of these are the gashadokuro and the jubokko. For example, Arifumi Sato is known to be a creator of modern yokai, and Shigeru Mizuki, a manga artist for yokai, in writings concerning research about yokai, pointed out that newly created yokai do exist,[10][11] and Mizuki himself, through GeGeGe no Kitaro, created about 30 new yokai.[12] There has been much criticism that this mixing of classical yokai with newly created yokai is making light of tradition and legends.[10][11] However, since there have already been those from the Edo period like Sekien Toriyama who created many new yokai, there is also the opinion that it is unreasonable to criticize modern creations without doing the same for classical creations too.[10] Furthermore, there is a favorable view that says that introducing various yokai characters through these books nurtured creativity and emotional development of young readers of the time.[11]

In media

Various kinds of yōkai are encountered in folklore and folklore-inspired art and literature.

Famous works and authors

Lafcadio Hearn's collection of Japanese ghost stories entitled Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things includes stories of yūrei and yōkai such as Yuki-onna, and is one of the first Western publications of its kind.

Yōkai remain prevalent in modern works of fiction. Shigeru Mizuki, the manga creator of such series as GeGeGe no Kitaro and Kappa no Sanpei, keeps yōkai in the popular imagination. Other popular works focusing on yōkai include the Nurarihyon no Mago series, Yu Yu Hakusho, Inuyasha: A Feudal Fairy Tale, and the 1960s Yokai Monsters film series, which was loosely remade in 2005 as Takashi Miike's The Great Yokai War. They often play major roles in Japanese fiction.

Synonyms to yōkai

Instead of yōkai, sometimes the word mononoke (written 物の怪) is used. It carries the meanings of "monster", "ghost", or "spirit", and the literal meaning is "the spirit of a thing" or "strange thing".[13] This word is used to blame any unexplainable event on, and both inanimate objects and spirits of humans and other creatures can be called mononoke. Several anime have dealt with mononoke, perhaps most famously Princess Mononoke (where the spelling of the word is simplified as もののけ).

See also


  1. ^ Youkai Kanji and Youkai Definition via Denshi Jisho at Retrieved 22 July 2013.
  2. ^ "Toriyama Sekien ~ 鳥山石燕 (とりやませきえん) ~ part of The Obakemono Project: An Online Encylopedia of Yōkai and Bakemono". Retrieved 2013-04-30. 
  3. ^ Kenkyusha's New Japanese-English Dictionary, ISBN 4-7674-2015-6
  4. ^ "Hannya - 般若 -はんにゃ - Japanese Folklore". SaruDama. 2005-09-06. Retrieved 2013-04-30. 
  5. ^ 草双紙 といわれる 絵本 で、ジャンルごとにより表紙が色分けされていた。黄表紙は大人向けのもので、その他に赤や青がある。
  6. ^ 多田克己 (2008). "『妖怪画本・狂歌百物語』妖怪総覧". In 京極夏彦 ・多田克己編. 妖怪画本 狂歌百物語. 国書刊行会. pp. 272–273頁.  
  7. ^ 湯本豪一 (2008). "遊びのなかの妖怪". In 講談社コミッククリエイト編. DISCOVER妖怪 日本妖怪大百科. KODANSHA Official File Magazine. VOL.10. 講談社. pp. 30–31頁.  
  8. ^ a b 山口敏太郎 (2007). 本当にいる日本の「現代妖怪」図鑑. 笠倉出版社. pp. 9頁.  
  9. ^ "都市伝説と妖怪". DISCOVER妖怪 日本妖怪大百科. VOL.10. pp. 2頁. 
  10. ^ a b c と学会 (2007). トンデモ本の世界U. 楽工社. pp. 226–231.  
  11. ^ a b c 妖怪王(山口敏太郎)グループ (2003). 昭和の子供 懐しの妖怪図鑑. コスモブックス. アートブック本の森. pp. 16–19.  
  12. ^ 水木しげる (1974). 妖怪なんでも入門. 小学館入門百科シリーズ. 小学館. p. 17.  
  13. ^ Toyama, Ryoko: "FAQ – What does 'Mononoke Hime' mean?." Retrieved 2012-08-16.

Further reading

  • Ballaster, R. (2005). Fables Of The East, Oxford University Press.
  • Hearn, L. (2005). Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, Tuttle Publishing.
  • Phillip, N. (2000). Annotated Myths & Legends, Covent Garden Books.
  • Tyler, R. (2002). Japanese Tales (Pantheon Fairy Tale & Folklore Library), Random House.
  • Yoda, H. and Alt, M. (2012). Yokai Attack!, Tuttle Publishing, ISBN 978-4-8053-1219-3.
  • Meyer, M. (2012). The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons, ISBN 978-0-9852-1840-9.
  • (German) Fujimoto, Nicole. " und das Spiel mit Fiktion in der edozeitlichen BildheftliteraturYôkai" (Archive). Nachrichten der Gesellschaft für Natur- und Völkerkunde Ostasiens (NOAG), University of Hamburg. Volume 78, Issues 183–184 (2008). p. 93-104.

External links

  • Youkai and Kaidan (PDF file)
  • The Obakemono Project
  • Tales of Ghostly Japan
  • Translated yokai stories from
  • The Ooishi Hyoroku Monogatari Picture Scroll
  • Database of images of Strange Phenomena and Yokai (Monstrous Beings)
  • an illustrated database of yōkai and ghosts
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